NAVAL STATION GREAT LAKES, Ill. (NNS) -- The new Secretary of Defense (SECDEF) Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) initiative has opened the doors for six legal non-permanent residents (LNPR) to become part of United States Navy as American Sailors.
They grew up below the 38th parallel in the Republic of Korea, in the shadow of Mt. Everest and the Himalayas in Nepal and on the plains of the Serengeti in Kenya. Now, they are learning to operate with the Navy special operators as linguistic specialists in San Diego after graduating boot camp at Recruit Training Command.
The Navy's effort to recruit LNPRs with special language skills began in 2009. The Army was the first to implement the program in 2008, and the Navy joined the initiative soon after. The overall mission of the MAVNI program is to recruit and accelerate citizenship for foreign individuals with certain linguistic proficiencies.
In his 2009 Posture Statement, Adm. Eric T. Olson, commander, United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), stated "in November 2008, thanks to a very positive response by the Secretary of the Army and the approval of the Secretary of Defense, we made progress in one of USSOCOM's high priority initiatives: increasing our level of regional expertise through the recruitment of native heritage speakers."
Olson's posture statement continued with "as of today, over 100 legal non-permanent residents (LNPRs) with special language skills and abilities have joined the Army under a pilot program. Some of these candidates will serve in special operations units."
Two days after graduating from boot camp and before transferring to follow-on training, they became U.S. citizens in a ceremony at the Region Legal Service Office (RLSO) Midwest at Naval Station Great Lakes.
While at the Navy's only boot camp, a MAVNI recruit's citizenship paperwork is reviewed, updated and completed so they can recite the Oath of Citizenship immediately after graduating RTC. This is a critical part of the program.
"We are helping them along the way to get their paperwork expedited to become citizens," said Lt. Cmdr. Mike Favata, student control director at RTC. "But we are still here to make them Sailors first, just like we would with any other recruit."
Favata said RTC staff members, like Lt. Vince Dasta, RTC's citizenship representative, go through the citizenship paperwork within the first 48 hours of a MAVNI recruit's arrival to RTC.
"They have to have a valid social security number and their visas have to be in certain categories," Favata said.
"(RTC) staff members help the recruits expedite fingerprint forms, get passport pictures taken, and escort them to the legal office where they actually sit down and meet one-on-one with a legal representative," Favata said. "We also make sure all the appropriate citizenship forms are properly filled out. We walk them through the process so they don't get hung up with any red tape."
For the new Sailors, becoming American citizens has been a long-time dream.
"I'm so excited," said Yun Hwang, 19, originally from Seoul. "I have had this dream of becoming an American for 10 years."
Hwang said she and her family moved to America when she was nine and her family has worked at becoming citizens since first arriving on American soil.
"It is a very long process and has been very hard to try and get jobs and getting a good education and into a good school without being a citizen," she said. "My brother just happened to find a Navy recruiter that knew of the MAVNI program and knew how we could expedite getting our American citizenship."
Hwang joins four other MAVNI Sailors in working as linguists with Navy Special Warfare Group 1 in Coronado, Calif. Hwang's brother is presently going through boot camp as a MAVNI recruit and is looking to become a Navy Special Operator.
Dasta said accelerating the process for the six new Americans, as well as future MAVNI recruits, is a team effort between Navy recruiting, RTC and the Chicago Office of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS).
"There's a lot to do and a number of processes each MAVNI recruit has to go through on top of the Navy curriculum and training they have to keep up with in boot camp," Dasta said. "So far, it's been very smooth, and they have all performed very well during their training."
Even before the recruits enter boot camp and begin the citizenship paperwork, each applicant goes through a very extensive background check.
"Right now, this is a pilot program, and we're not really going to know the success of this program until we see how these new Sailors do in the fleet," Favata said. "If they do as well as we think they will, and if the Navy looks to expand this program, we'll definitely have to continue to be extremely vigilant to make sure the right folks get in."
Dasta added that part of the enlistment through the MAVNI program is agreeing to honorably complete their obligated military service. If the candidates don't meet this commitment, they could lose their citizenship.
"But that would be the decision of the USCIS," Dasta said.
For this first six Sailors, this isn't considered a problem.
"I have waited a long time for this," said Seaman Sandesh Shrentha, 25, originally from Katmandu, Nepal, who spent the past several years in San Diego on work and student visas. "Knowing how far I have come and where I was when first arriving in the United States, I now know I have opportunities, and it is like the world is now open for me."
There are three MAVNI recruits presently attending recruit training, and they are expected to graduate in the spring of 2010. RTC is also scheduled to receive nine more MAVNI recruits at boot camp later in the year.
For more information on the MAVNI program, visit: http://immigration.about.com/od/uscitizenship/f/MAVNI_Program.htm or
For more news from Naval Service Training Command, visit www.navy.mil/local/greatlakes/.